City mass transit at crossroads
Supporters and critics both agree, the IndyGo transit system is at a crossroads. Indianapolis is the country’s 12th largest city but IndyGo, with an annual operating budget of around $43 million, ranks 47th among the nation’s largest municipal transportation systems, lagging well behind transit systems in other medium-sized Midwestern cities such as Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and St. Louis.
Thus it is not surprising that in a city where fewer than 5 percent of the population uses the mass transit system on any given day, many people say it is easier, better or quicker merely to take a car. But don’t tell that to Gilbert Holmes, a retired career military and later businessman who took over the reins of the beleaguered IndyGo system in 2002 and believes plans for the future of mass transit in Indianapolis are full of promise.
“This is an opportunity to make this city a better place to live,” Holmes said recently in his office at IndyGo headquarters at Washington and Harding streets.
“It is crucial to the future of the city. Other cities have conquered these problems, and we can too.”
Holmes, who grew up taking 25-cent rides on the Chicago Transit Authority — when he could afford it — speaks in blunt but often colorful terms to describe IndyGo and the necessity of its survival to the economic success of the city.
“We have holes in our socks,” he says of a mass transit system that has half as many buses on the street today as were there in 1975, and which has seen public funding for mass transit continually shrink over the last 30 years.
“But it is well-documented that even if you don‘t use public transit, it benefits you,” he said, citing better air quality, less traffic congestion, less individual and societal dependence on foreign oil and better availability for the poor to reach jobs in areas of job growth.
Yet the effort to convince private individuals to ride IndyGo and for public officials to help fund it is keeping Holmes busy. The mass transit industry measures ridership by looking at the number of rides on a system. A ride is one person boarding a vehicle and paying once for one ride. Ridership in Indianapolis has dropped in three of the last four years, from 9.2 million rides in 2001 to 8.1 million rides in 2005.
At the end of last year, IndyGo saw roughly 22,000 rides a day, nearly half as many as the 41,300 average daily rides on the Columbus, Ohio, transit system. The Cincinnati system saw 78,400 average daily rides, while St. Louis saw 108,700 average daily rides, according to figures from those agencies or from the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based mass transit advocacy group.
But IndyGo and other mass transit systems are currently getting some help from the gas pump. With gasoline currently hovering at more than $3 a gallon, IndyGo has seen a large upswing in ridership. Mass transit ridership nationwide was up 2.1 percent in 2005, according to the APTA.
And the Indianapolis transit agency reported an 8.1 percent increase in ridership in the first quarter of 2006 over ridership in the fourth quarter of 2005, said IndyGo communications manager Ronnetta Slaughter. But IndyGo, which uses roughly 2 million gallons of diesel fuel a year, is only paying $1.91 a gallon this year, a price that is expected to dramatically jump next year, increasing pressure to raise the $1.25 bus fare or further cut service — or both. “We are going to take it in the shorts next year,“ Holmes predicted.
Not helping the situation is that only 25 percent of IndyGo’s operating budget comes from the fare box, with the other 75 percent coming from federal, state and local subsidies. And if gas prices slow the overall economy, increases in public funding are a lot less likely.
Despite the challenges ahead, Holmes is pressing on.
His goal is to improve the timeliness and dependability of the system, and build a downtown transit center.
Though only in the initial stages of planning and public comment, IndyGo has $30 million it can use to build a transit center. It would have covered space for passengers, loading areas for buses, parking spaces for cars and probably space for retail shops. Building a transit center would eliminate some 122 buses converging on the area around Ohio and Meridian streets twice a day during peak periods.
Until then, current and potential transit riders will have to wait. “It [the transit center] is a good idea,” said Sharon Byrkett, who is in a wheelchair and who uses IndyGo’s paratransit nearly every day. “But until the bus system gives [riders] more of something they can use, there is going to be a problem.”